The death of Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, spiritual leader of the Satmar Chasidic sect, marks more than the passing of a revered Torah sage. It also signals the conclusive passage of his community from Europe to America, a process that first began nearly 60 years ago.
The movement’s founding figure, the Alter Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, collected the tattered fragments of his Transylvanian community from the ashes of the Holocaust and found a new home in 1947 in Brooklyn and later in Kiryas Joel, N.Y. Over the course of that time, the Satmar Chasidim have come to symbolize the classic ultra-Orthodox group in this country: wedded to a set of stringent ritual practices, dress norms, Yiddish as a daily language and a leadership model that set them apart from their neighbors. It is precisely the openness of American society that allows for the preservation of such distinctive features of their communal life.
And yet, the story is more complicated. While the Satmars are steadfast in their desire to guard the boundaries of their community, they are, like other groups (including Jews at large), susceptible to the assimilatory forces of American society. For example, it is telling that the Alter Rebbe decided to settle the community in Brooklyn, in the midst of a vibrant city that the Chasidim share with a diverse, multiethnic population.
Like so many immigrant groups before them and since, the Satmars have, unavoidably, become American. They willingly and skillfully operate in the rough and tumble world of New York politics and readily use the language of American political discourse in describing their community to outsiders.
Indeed, one Satmar recently described Kiryas Joel as a “two-party system,” an unthinkable proposition in the time of the Alter Rebbe but as American as apple pie. He was referring to the rift between two factions that opened up after the 1979 death of Joel Teitelbaum, and that has since developed into a bitter struggle for power between two of the sons of his recently deceased successor, Moses Teitelbaum. In what is perhaps the most revealing indication of the “Americaness” of the Satmars, it seems likely that the fate of the community’s leadership, and certainly a fair portion of its reported half-billion dollar empire, will be decided not by rabbinic authorities but in New York state court.
Unlike the better known Lubavitch (Chabad) Chasidim, the Satmars have little appetite for public exposure or, for that matter, outreach (kiruv) to other Jews. Rather, they are content to live within the confines of their communities, bound by the norms of Jewish law. Their way of life reaches back to the town of Satu Mare, in present-day Romania (then Hungary), where Joel Teitelbaum assumed leadership of the Orthodox Jewish community in the 1920s. Under his guidance, the community thrived, though it quickly developed a reputation for contentious relations with other Jewish groups.
Most prominent among the Jewish enemies of Satmar were Zionists, whose movement Joel Teitelbaum saw as “the greatest form of spiritual impurity in the entire world” — due to Zionism’s audacious effort to jump-start the messianic process.
In an ironic turn of fate, it was a Zionist activist, the famous Rudolf Kasztner, who rescued Teitelbaum from likely death. After the Nazi invasion of Hungary in the spring of 1944, Kasztner made a financial arrangement with Nazi officials that led to the rescue of 1,686 Jews, including Teitelbaum.
The Satmar Rebbe was brought by the Kasztner transport to Switzerland, where he stayed for a short while before heading off to Palestine. By 1947, he resettled in the United States. Upon moving to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, the Satmar community grew rapidly. Under the Rebbe’s supervision, the community built up a large network of schools, synagogues and social services that became a dominant force within the Chasidic world of Brooklyn and beyond.
In 1977, the village of Kiryas Joel was established as a legally recognized municipality in Orange County, N.Y., approximately 50 miles north of New York City. Today it is home to approximately 18,000 Satmar residents and is growing faster than any other municipality in New York state. This development is a reflection of the community’s desire to live according to its own “Torah-true” principles; at the same time, for all of the Satmars’ desire to separate themselves, they are part of a much larger American Jewish move to the suburbs. Even a group as committed to social insularity as this one cannot resist the powerful imprint of American society.
In 1968, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. With no direct male heirs, questions about succession swirled about the Satmar community and intensified after his death in 1979. After considerable discussion and dissension, his nephew, Moses, assumed control of the movement in 1980 — over the objection of the late rabbi’s wife.
Throughout much of Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum’s tenure as Satmar Rebbe, controversy has roiled the community. An important divide emerged in Kiryas Joel in the late 1980s between supporters of a plan to create a public school district in the community for special-needs children and opponents of this plan; after nearly a decade and a half of litigation, which proceeded all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Kiryas Joel school district was authorized.
Another dividing line has emerged over the past decade between Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg, where two sons of Rabbi Moses — Aaron and Zalman, respectively, positioned themselves to succeed their father as grand rabbi. Moses Teitelbaum’s recently unveiled will declared that Zalman in Williamsburg should succeed him without acrimony or dissent. But Aaron and his followers have already indicated that they do not accept the will’s verdict.
Indeed, in violation of a cherished principle of traditional Jewish practice, the Satmar Chasidim, most recently, followers of Zalman and Aaron, have repeatedly taken their internal disputes to secular courts. Even more interesting, each side frames its legal arguments in the most American of ways, making frequent recourse to the language of free religious expression, separation of church and state and responsible citizenship. Thus, the Satmar community is not only “a two-party system,” it is also the product of an American liberal order whose core premises (e.g., individual rights) stand in tension with their communal way of life and style of leadership.
What the death of Moses Teitelbaum — and the ongoing battle over succession and financial control — make clear is that this tension will not soon disappear. It will remain a feature of the growing Satmar community as it negotiates not only deep internal fissures but also the friction between its desire to remain socially insular and its need to be politically engaged with the surrounding world in order to preserve itself. What the future holds cannot be divined, but it likely will include the unique blend of conscious isolation and unwitting assimilation that has always characterized the American journey of the Satmar Chasidim.
Barry Trachtenberg teaches Judaic studies at the University at Albany in New York state, and David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.